Leah Jennings leans into her llama’s thick bushy mane and gives him a hug.
“He’s pretty good at cuddling,” she says with a laugh.
Jennings, 18, is an eight-year member and the current president of the Elkhart County Llovable Llamas 4-H Club.
She’s been showing Winter Coal at the fair since he was 4 months old, and they’ve built quite a bond over time.
“He’s really close to me. He trusts me,” she said Wednesday afternoon, July 23, outside the Beef and Dairy Arena at the Elkhart County 4-H Fair. “It’s interesting, actually. Whenever he gets another handler, he’s a completely different llama.”
Jennings compared their relationship to the bond other people might have with their dogs.
“You love them and they love you, and they give you their respect. So it’s a good relationship, a loving relationship, a friend relationship,” she said.
So how exactly does one find themselves in the llama world? For Jennings, it started when she was 8 years old.
“I lived in Chesterton, Ind., when I was younger and my friend and I were, for some weird reason, obsessed with llamas,” she said.
When her family moved to Elkhart County, she discovered the Llovable Llamas Club and her parents encouraged her to join as a way to make friends and get involved in the community.
“I loved llamas so I was like, I have to do it,” she said.
When Jennings isn’t showing Winter Coal at the fair, training him or taking him out to community events with the club, he stays at a farm in Bristol with more than 100 other llamas.
“He’s one of the most calm, well-mannered llamas on the farm, and he’s really well-respected from the other llamas, actually,” she said.
As it turns out, llamas are pretty low maintenance.
“They really don’t need a lot,” Jennings said. “They’re not like horses. They don’t tear up a pasture and they’re not expensive to take care of,” she said.
They do need to have their toenails clipped and thick, bushy fur shaved about once a year.
Not only is Winter Coal a well-behaved young fellow, he’s also a champ.
In the past few years at the fair, he’s won Grand Champion Performance Animal, Reserve Champion Performance Animal and Grand Champion Showmanship.
“This year he’s kind of slacking because it’s my last year, so we’re trying to have a good time,” she said.
Jennings just graduated from Northridge High School and will attend college at Bowling Green State University in Ohio this fall — but that doesn’t mean she’s letting go of Winter Coal or the llama lifestyle.
“I’ll do shows with him throughout the year even when I’m at college, and when I come back I’ll be a 4-H project leader,” she said.
Her sister Lauren is currently following in her footsteps — her llama won Grand Champion for Showmanship on Monday.
Jennings said people who come see the llamas at the fair are often curious, intrigued and sometimes even scared.
"They’re different than any livestock shown here,” she said.
Her biggest hope is that more people take time to learn more about the woolly creatures.
“They’re beautiful animals, and they have so much more to give than people give them credit for,” she said.